Wis. legislators propose raising conviction cap to $1M

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is moving to dramatically re-structure compensation rules for people wrongly convicted in Wisconsin

By Todd Richmond
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. — A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is moving to dramatically re-structure compensation rules for people wrongly convicted in Wisconsin, introducing a bill on Thursday that would raise the maximum payout from $25,000 to $1 million and seal exonerees' court records.

Wisconsin currently offers the wrongly convicted $5,000 for every year of incarceration up to $25,000. Under the bill, exonerees could collect $50,000 for every year behind bars with the total payout capped at $1 million with adjustments for inflation every five years. They also could participate in the state's health insurance program for up to a decade at their own expense and would get access to transitional services any inmatecoming out of prison receives, such as job training and housing.

"Wisconsin's current $25,000 compensation limit is woefully low," Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said in a news release. "Wrongfully convicted persons are deprived of years of their lives — the loss of an opportunity to start a family, establish themselves in their community and find job security."

Keith Findley, director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which works to free the wrongly convicted, said the bill is long overdue. Wisconsin's $5,000 per-year payout is the lowest among the 30 states with laws providing some form of wrongful conviction compensation, he said.

"This is an important, important change in Wisconsin law," Findley said of the bill. "It's well beyond time we address the problem and fix this. The experience (of being wrongly incarcerated) is horribly damaging."

The bill would make anyone released from a wrongful conviction since Jan. 1, 1990 eligible for compensation. The bill's authors believe about 40 people fall within that window.

Exonerees would have to obtain a clear declaration of innocence from the state Division of Hearings and Appeals. Often, judges overturn convictions without clearly stating the exoneree is innocent. Once they have declaration in hand, the state claims board would have to release the money. If an exoneree wins money in a civil lawsuit, he or she would have to return a dollar amount equal to the settlement to the state.

The bill also contains a clause that would require judges to seal an exoneree's records. Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Act, said his group would oppose that mandate. He said it's pointless to close the records since wrongful convictions are typically highly-publicized cases and stories about them will pop up all over the Internet.

"You can take whatever you want off (the court's records), but a Google search will still show who these people are. It's still going to show up somehow," he said.

Kooyenga's office referred questions about the provision to Rep. Gary Hebl, a Sun Prairie Democrat who co-wrote the bill. Hebl, who took part in a news conference Wednesday blasting Republicans for attempting to insert language into the state budget that would have sealed almost everything state and local government officials create, couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Messages left with aides for the measure's other co-authors, Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, weren't immediately returned.

The authors make up a rare bipartisan coalition on a major bill, but the proposal's fate is unclear. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he's reviewing the bill but is open to it. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Fitzgerald, said Senate Republicans may discuss the measure next week.

A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Scott Walker also didn't' immediately respond to an email.

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